To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic by Ben Sessa
Author Ben Sessa is a psychiatrist, and his novel starts with a psychiatrist character, Dr Robert Austell, having a violent fantasy where he cuts a patient’s throat with a scalpel and nonchalantly watches her bleed to death. The reader can be forgiven for momentarily wandering just how autobiographical the work is, and indeed whether such things are the norm within the psychiatric profession! But of course this slasher opening is a piece of black comedy in order to set up the jaded, disillusioned Austell as someone who – like the majority of the working population – is bored with his job and wishes he could be doing something more enlightening.
Austell’s situation is contrasted with that of another British psychiatrist, Dr Joseph Langley, who is living the New Age life in California, taking in the ocean vibes whilst high on LSD, his ego and self frittering away ‘into nothing but a river of effervescent specks of infinite light.’ Steeped in the alternative society since embryohood, Langley has brought those values to bear on his psychiatric work, and is now a renowned leader in the field of psychedelic therapy – using LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA to effect healing on the emotionally damaged.
The two psychiatrists come together when Austell happens to attend a psychedelic conference in California, not really aware of what he’s getting into. Here, the novel’s comic undertone gets a boost as a number of New Age weirdos are seen through Austell’s eyes. They include one speaker, Mountain Spirit, who sports a grey ponytail and talks of:
‘…The double helix gliss-openings percolating into our grid cubes transmit to us from mutated cadence entities. Using a synesthetic code derived from two-dimensional forms we exist simultaneously in identical universes. We jump in real time using fractal wave structures between this, our everyday world and the Other – where nothingness is connected with ourselves, the spirits and our environment.’
Austell thinks he’s a suitable case for sectioning, but as the conference progressives he becomes less judgemental of the quirks of psychedelic medicine, and by the time Joseph Langley speaks, Austell is more receptive. The two psychiatrists meet in the bar afterwards and begin a beautiful friendship, each seeing the other as their own flipside or complementary element in a yin/yang dynamic – Austell the down-to-earth jobbing physician with regular patient contact, and Langley the head-in-the-clouds world-changer who needs to get more pragmatic to achieve results.
They form a partnership, which leads them to establish a psychedelic medicine centre, down on a muddy farm in Somerset. Here, a selection of Austell’s patients – hopeless cases as far as conventional psychiatry is concerned – have their lives turned around and are completely rebased as a result of targeted treatment with LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA. Eventually a thriving commune develops on the farm, and word of the miracles being worked spreads far and wide.
Psychedelic medicine is Ben Sessa’s own pet project within his psychiatric work, and in To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic, he is actualising a dream of it becoming generally accepted and even taking over the world. In reality it could never be as simple as portrayed, and no one knows this better than Dr Sessa himself, who has written and talked extensively about the obstacles, misunderstandings and general resistance there is toward such a venture.
But within sections of the psychiatric world itself, there is interest and sympathy for the clinical use of psychedelics, and this is something he wants to nurture. A novel, then, concerning the subject – with a far greater latitude of creative freedom than a non-fiction work provides – would seem like an ideal venture and a way to win over more support and attention regarding the cause.
But still, it has to be entertaining and page-turning to succeed, and indeed it does. Dr Sessa displays a great talent for creative writing and never ‘lectures’ his readers in a dull or pedantic way. Instead he uses irony and satire in liberal doses to take amusing sideswipes at conventional psychiatry – in particular its reliance on fat-profit pharmaceuticals to achieve any end. Whether it be benzodiazepines, SSRIs, tricyclics, anti-convulsants or antipsychotics, their efficacy is limited and patients really need something more to fill the black holes inside themselves.
Ben Sessa is also good at bringing characters alive, from spaced-out hippies to plodding psychiatric journeymen to burnt out headcases. His novel moves along rip-roaringly and leaves a constant smile on the face. Perhaps the story does involve a lot of wishful thinking, but that’s what psychedelic transformation is all about – dreaming wonderful dreams, attempting to make the impossible come true, and whatever the outcome it matters no great deal, for as the Buddhists say: the passing is nirvana.
This review was originally published on Musings of the Mad Artist.